Mound Builders

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Monks Mound, built c. 950-1100 CE and located at the Cahokia Mounds UNESCO World Heritage Site near Collinsville, Illinois, is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in America north of Mesoamerica. Monks Mound in July.JPG
Monks Mound, built c.950–1100 CE and located at the Cahokia Mounds UNESCO World Heritage Site near Collinsville, Illinois, is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in America north of Mesoamerica.

The various cultures collectively termed "Mound Builders" were inhabitants of North America who, during a circa 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. These included the pre-Columbian cultures of the Archaic period, Woodland period (Calusa culture Adena and Hopewell cultures), and Mississippian period; dating from roughly 3500 BCE (the construction of Watson Brake) to the 16th century CE, and living in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Valley, and the Mississippi River valley and its tributary waters. [1]

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Mound Artificial heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris

A mound is a heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. Most commonly, mounds are earthen formations such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. A mound may be any rounded area of topographically higher elevation on any surface. Artificial mounds have been created for a variety of reasons throughout history, including ceremonial, burial (tumulus), and commemorative purposes.

Woodland period period of North American pre-Columbian cultures

In the classification of Archaeological cultures of North America, the Woodland period of North American pre-Columbian cultures spanned a period from roughly 1000 BCE to European contact in the eastern part of North America, with some archaeologists distinguishing the Mississippian period, from 1000 CE to European contact as a separate period. The term "Woodland Period" was introduced in the 1930s as a generic term for prehistoric sites falling between the Archaic hunter-gatherers and the agriculturalist Mississippian cultures. The Eastern Woodlands cultural region covers what is now eastern Canada south of the Subarctic region, the Eastern United States, along to the Gulf of Mexico.


Since the 19th century, the prevailing scholarly consensus has been that the mounds were constructed by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers met natives living in a number of later Mississippian cities, described their cultures, and left artifacts. [2] Research and study of these cultures and peoples has been based mostly on archaeology and anthropology.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North, Central and South America and their descendants

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the Pre-Columbian peoples of North, Central and South America and their descendants.

Archaeology, or archeology, is the study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. The archaeological record consists of artifacts, architecture, biofacts or ecofacts and cultural landscapes. Archaeology can be considered both a social science and a branch of the humanities. In North America archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology, while in Europe it is often viewed as either a discipline in its own right or a sub-field of other disciplines.

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.

Woodland culture

A mound diagram of the platform mound showing the multiple layers of mound construction, mound structures such as temples or mortuaries, ramps with log stairs, and prior structures under later layers, multiple terraces, and intrusive burials Mississippian culture mound components HRoe 2011.jpg
A mound diagram of the platform mound showing the multiple layers of mound construction, mound structures such as temples or mortuaries, ramps with log stairs, and prior structures under later layers, multiple terraces, and intrusive burials

The namesake cultural trait of the Mound Builders was the building of mounds and other earthworks. These burial and ceremonial structures were typically flat-topped pyramids or platform mounds, flat-topped or rounded cones, elongated ridges, and sometimes a variety of other forms. They were generally built as part of complex villages. The early earthworks built in Louisiana around 3500 BCE are the only ones known to have been built by a hunter-gatherer culture.

In geometry, a frustum is the portion of a solid that lies between one or two parallel planes cutting it. A right frustum is a parallel truncation of a right pyramid or right cone.

Platform mound Earthwork or mound intended to support a structure or activity

A platform mound is any earthwork or mound intended to support a structure or activity.

Louisiana State of the United States of America

Louisiana is a state in the Deep South region of the South Central United States. It is the 31st most extensive and the 25th most populous of the 50 United States. Louisiana is bordered by the state of Texas to the west, Arkansas to the north, Mississippi to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. A large part of its eastern boundary is demarcated by the Mississippi River. Louisiana is the only U.S. state with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are equivalent to counties. The state's capital is Baton Rouge, and its largest city is New Orleans.

The best-known flat-topped pyramidal structure, which at more than 100 ft (30 m) tall is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork north of Mexico, is Monks Mound at Cahokia in present-day Collinsville, Illinois. At its maximum about CE 1150, Cahokia was an urban settlement with 20,000–30,000 people; this population was not exceeded by North American European settlements until after 1800.

Mexico Country in the southern portion of North America

Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico. Covering almost 2,000,000 square kilometers (770,000 sq mi), the nation is the fifth largest country in the Americas by total area and the 13th largest independent state in the world. With an estimated population of over 120 million people, the country is the tenth most populous state and the most populous Spanish-speaking state in the world, while being the second most populous nation in Latin America after Brazil. Mexico is a federation comprising 31 states and Mexico City, a special federal entity that is also the capital city and its most populous city. Other metropolises in the state include Guadalajara, Monterrey, Puebla, Toluca, Tijuana and León.

Monks Mound part of Cahokia, the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas and the largest pyramid north of Mesoamerica

Monks Mound is the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas and the largest pyramid north of Mesoamerica. The beginning of its construction dates from 900-955 CE. Located at the Cahokia Mounds UNESCO World Heritage Site near Collinsville, Illinois, the mound size was calculated in 1988 as about 100 feet high, 955 feet long including the access ramp at the southern end, and 775 feet wide. This makes Monks Mound roughly the same size at its base as the Great Pyramid of Giza. The perimeter of its base is larger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. As a platform mound, the earthwork supported a wooden structure on the summit.

Cahokia archaeological site near East St. Louis, Illinois, United States

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. This historic park lies in southern Illinois between East St. Louis and Collinsville. The park covers 2,200 acres (890 ha), or about 3.5 square miles (9 km2), and contains about 80 mounds, but the ancient city was much larger. In its heyday, Cahokia covered about 6 square miles (16 km2) and included about 120 manmade earthen mounds in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and functions.

A depiction of the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, as published in the magazine The Century, April 1890 Serpent Mound - The Century.gif
A depiction of the Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, as published in the magazine The Century, April 1890

Some effigy mounds were constructed in the shapes or outlines of culturally significant animals. The most famous effigy mound, Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, ranges from 1 to just over 3 ft tall (30–100 cm)., 20 ft (6 m) wide, more than 1,330 ft (405 m) long, and shaped as an undulating serpent.

Effigy mound Raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, human, or other figure and generally containing one or more human burials

An effigy mound is a raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, human, or other figure and generally containing one or more human burials. Effigy mounds were primarily built during the Late Woodland Period. Conical and linear mounds, the predecessors of effigy mounds may date from as far back as 700 BCE. They remain places First Peoples frequent to visit and speak with ancestors, to put down tobacco and to give thanks. These sites are primarily visited by Hochungra people whose ancestors likely built the great majority of them, though they are also visited by people from other original indigenous nations such as Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), Kikapu, Oneida, Menominii who reside in Wisconsin and surrounding areas. There also remains the possibility that a greater diversity of First Peoples such as ancestors of those named nations may have contributed to building some percentage of the mounds. That is to say that ancestral Hochunk likely popularized the form and other groups may have adopted the practice of building effigy mounds from having observed the Hochunk ancestors methods and aesthetics surrounding their construction.

Serpent Mound archaeological site

The Great Serpent Mound is a 1,348-foot (411 m)-long, three-foot-high prehistoric effigy mound on a plateau of the Serpent Mound crater along Ohio Brush Creek in Adams County, Ohio. Maintained within a park by Ohio History Connection, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior. The Serpent Mound of Ohio was first reported from surveys by Ephraim Squire and Edwin Davis in their historic volume Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, published in 1848 by the newly founded Smithsonian Museum.

Serpent (symbolism) Mythological symbol

The serpent, or snake, is one of the oldest and most widespread mythological symbols. The word is derived from Latin serpens, a crawling animal or snake. Snakes have been associated with some of the oldest rituals known to humankind and represent dual expression of good and evil.

Many different tribal groups and chiefdoms, involving an array of beliefs and unique cultures over thousands of years, built mounds as expressions of their cultures. The general term, "mound builder", covered their shared architectural practice of earthwork mound construction. This practice, believed to be associated with a cosmology that had a cross-cultural appeal, may indicate common cultural antecedents. The first mound building was an early marker of political and social complexity among the cultures in the Eastern United States. Watson Brake in Louisiana, constructed about 3500 BCE during the Middle Archaic period, is the oldest dated mound complex in North America. It is one of 11 mound complexes from this period found in the Lower Mississippi Valley. [3]

In anthropology, a tribe is a human social group. Exact definitions of what constitutes a tribe vary among anthropologists. The concept is often contrasted with other social groups concepts, such as nations, states, and forms of kinship.

A chiefdom is a form of hierarchical political organization in non-industrial societies usually based on kinship, and in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or 'houses'. These elites form a political-ideological aristocracy relative to the general group.

Cosmology Universe events since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago

Cosmology is a branch of astronomy concerned with the studies of the origin and evolution of the universe, from the Big Bang to today and on into the future. It is the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. Physical cosmology is the scientific study of the universe's origin, its large-scale structures and dynamics, and its ultimate fate, as well as the laws of science that govern these areas.

These mound builders were organized; hundreds or even thousands of workers had to dig up tons of earth with the hand tools available, the soil had to be moved long distances, and finally, workers had to create the shape the builder had planned.

Archaeological surveys

A depiction of the Portsmouth Earthworks in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley Portsmouth Works Group A B C D Squier and Davis 01.jpg
A depiction of the Portsmouth Earthworks in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley

The most complete reference for these earthworks is Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley , written by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis. It was published in 1848 by the Smithsonian Institution. Since many of the features which the authors documented have since been destroyed or diminished by farming and development, their surveys, sketches, and descriptions are still used by modern archaeologists. All of the sites which they identified as located in Kentucky came from the manuscripts of C. S. Rafinesque.

Reports of early European explorers

Illustration of the Parkin Site, thought to be the capital of the Province of Casqui visited by de Soto Parkin Mounds Aerial HRoe 2016.jpg
Illustration of the Parkin Site, thought to be the capital of the Province of Casqui visited by de Soto

Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador, who during 1540–1542, traversed what became the Southeast United States, encountered many different mound-builder peoples, perhaps descendants of the great Mississippian culture. The mound-building tradition still existed in the southeast during the mid-16th century. De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.

Engraving after Jacques le Moyne, showing the burial of a Timucua chief Bulletin (1901) (20396721516).jpg
Engraving after Jacques le Moyne, showing the burial of a Timucua chief

The artist Jacques le Moyne, who had accompanied French settlers to northeastern Florida during the 1560s, likewise noted many Native American groups using existing mounds and constructing others. He produced a series of watercolor paintings depicting scenes of native life. Although most of his paintings have been lost, some engravings were copied from the originals and published in 1591 by a Flemish company. Among these is a depiction of the burial of an aboriginal Floridian tribal chief, an occasion of great mourning and ceremony. The original caption reads:

Maturin Le Petit, a Jesuit priest, met the Natchez people as did Le Page du Pratz (1758), a French explorer. Both observed them in the area that later became Mississippi. The Natchez were devout worshippers of the sun. Having a population of some 4,000, they occupied at least nine villages and were presided over by a paramount chief, known as the Great Sun, who wielded absolute power. Both observers noted the high temple mounds which the Natchez had built so that the Great Sun could commune with God, the sun. His large residence was built atop the highest mound, from "which, every morning, he greeted the rising sun, invoking thanks and blowing tobacco smoke to the four cardinal directions". [4] [5] [6]

Later explorers to the same regions, only a few decades after mound-building settlements had been reported, found the regions largely depopulated, the residents vanished, and the mounds untended. Since little violent conflict with Europeans had occurred in that area during that period, the most plausible explanation is that infectious diseases from the Old World, such as smallpox and influenza, had decimated most of the Native Americans who had comprised the last mound-builder civilization. [7] [8] [9] [10]

Mound-building cultures

Archaic era

Illustration of Watson Brake, the oldest mound complex in North America Watson Brake Aerial Illustration HRoe 2014.jpg
Illustration of Watson Brake, the oldest mound complex in North America
Illustration of Poverty Point in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana Poverty Point Aerial HRoe 2014.jpg
Illustration of Poverty Point in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana

Radiocarbon dating has established the age of the earliest Archaic mound complex in southeastern Louisiana. One of the two Monte Sano Site mounds, excavated in 1967 before being destroyed for new construction at Baton Rouge, was dated at 6220 BP (plus or minus 140 years). [11] Researchers at the time thought that such societies were not organizationally capable of this type of construction. [11] It has since been dated as about 6500 BP, or 4500 BCE, [12] although not all agree. [13]

Watson Brake is located in the floodplain of the Ouachita River near Monroe in northern Louisiana. Securely dated to about 5,400 years ago (around 3500 BCE), in the Middle Archaic period, it consists of a formation of 11 mounds from 3 to 25 ft (1-8 m) tall, connected by ridges to form an oval nearly 900 ft (270 m) across. [14] In the Americas, building of complex earthwork mounds started at an early date, well before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed. Watson Brake was being constructed nearly 2,000 years before the better-known Poverty Point, and building continued for 500 years. [14] Middle Archaic mound construction seems to have ceased about 2800 BC, and scholars have not ascertained the reason, but it may have been because of changes in river patterns or other environmental factors. [15]

With the 1990s dating of Watson Brake and similar complexes, scholars established that preagricultural, preceramic American societies could organize to accomplish complex construction during extended periods of time, invalidating scholars' traditional ideas of Archaic society. [16] Watson Brake was built by a hunter-gatherer society, the people of which occupied the area on only a seasonal basis, but where successive generations organized to build the complex mounds over a 500-year period. Their food consisted mostly of fish and deer, as well as available plants.

Poverty Point, built about 1500 BCE in what is now Louisiana, is a prominent example of Late Archaic mound-builder construction (around 2500 BCE – 1000 BCE). It is a striking complex of more than one square mile, where six earthwork crescent ridges were built in concentric arrangement, interrupted by radial aisles. Three mounds are also part of the main complex, and evidence of residences extends for about 3 miles along the bank of Bayou Macon. It is the major site among 100 associated with the Poverty Point culture and is one of the best-known early examples of earthwork monumental architecture. Unlike the localized societies during the Middle Archaic, this culture showed evidence of a wide trading network outside its area, which is one of its distinguishing characteristics.

Horr's Island, Florida, now a gated community next to Marco Island, when excavated by Michael Russo in 1980 found an Archaic Indian village site. Mound A was a burial mound that dated to 3400 BCE, making it the oldest known burial mound in North America. [17] [ better source needed ]

Woodland period

Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, West Virginia, Adena culture Grave Creek Mound.jpg
Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, West Virginia, Adena culture

The oldest mound associated with the Woodland period was the mortuary mound and pond complex at the Fort Center site in Glade County, Florida. 2012 excavations and dating by Thompson and Pluckhahn show that work began around 2600 BCE, seven centuries before the mound-builders in Ohio.

The Archaic period was followed by the Woodland period (circa 1000 BCE). Some well-understood examples are the Adena culture of Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of nearby states. The subsequent Hopewell culture built monuments from present-day Illinois to Ohio; it is renowned for its geometric earthworks. The Adena and Hopewell were not the only mound-building peoples during this time period. Contemporaneous mound-building cultures existed throughout what is now the Eastern United States, stretching as far south as Crystal River in western Florida. During this time, in parts of present-day Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, the Hopewellian Marksville culture degenerated and was succeeded by the Baytown culture. [18] Reasons for degeneration include attacks from other tribes or the impact of severe climatic changes undermining agriculture.

Coles Creek culture

Illustration of Kings Crossing Site in Warren County, Mississippi Kings Crossing Site HRoe 2008.jpg
Illustration of Kings Crossing Site in Warren County, Mississippi

The Coles Creek culture is a Late Woodland culture (700-1200 CE) in the Lower Mississippi Valley in the Southern United States that marks a significant change of the cultural history of the area. Population and cultural and political complexity increased, especially by the end of the Coles Creek period. Although many of the classic traits of chiefdom societies were not yet made, by CE 1000, the formation of simple elite polities had begun. Coles Creek sites are found in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Texas. The Coles Creek culture is considered ancestral to the Plaquemine culture. [19] [20]

Mississippian cultures

Illustration of Cahokia with the large Monks Mound in the central precinct, encircled by a palisade, surrounded by four plazas, notably the Grand Plaza to the south Cahokia Aerial HRoe 2015.jpg
Illustration of Cahokia with the large Monks Mound in the central precinct, encircled by a palisade, surrounded by four plazas, notably the Grand Plaza to the south

Around 900–1450 CE, the Mississippian culture developed and spread through the Eastern United States, primarily along the river valleys. [21] The largest regional center where the Mississippian culture is first definitely developed is located in Illinois near the Mississippi, and is referred to presently as Cahokia. It had several regional variants including the Middle Mississippian culture of Cahokia, the South Appalachian Mississippian variant at Moundville and Etowah, the Plaquemine Mississippian variant in south Louisiana and Mississippi, [22] and the Caddoan Mississippian culture of northwestern Louisiana, eastern Texas, and southwestern Arkansas. [23] Like the mound builders of the Ohio, these people built gigantic mounds as burial and ceremonial places. [24]

Fort Ancient culture

Artist's conception of the Fort Ancient culture SunWatch Indian Village Sunwatch Aerial illustration HRoe 2018 400px.jpg
Artist's conception of the Fort Ancient culture SunWatch Indian Village

Fort Ancient is the name for a Native American culture that flourished from 1000 to 1650 CE among a people who predominantly inhabited land along the Ohio River in areas of modern-day southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and western West Virginia.

Plaquemine culture

Illustration of the Holly Bluff Site in Yazoo County, Mississippi Holly Bluff Aerial HRoe 2016.jpg
Illustration of the Holly Bluff Site in Yazoo County, Mississippi

A continuation of the Coles Creek culture in the lower Mississippi River Valley in western Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. Examples include the Medora Site in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; and the Anna and Emerald Mound sites in Mississippi. Sites inhabited by Plaquemine peoples continued to be used as vacant ceremonial centers without large village areas much as their Coles Creek ancestors had done, although their layout began to show influences from Middle Mississippian peoples to the north. The Winterville and Holly Bluff (Lake George) sites in western Mississippi are good examples that exemplify this change of layout, but continuation of site usage. [25] During the Terminal Coles Creek period (CE 1150 to 1250), contact increased with Mississippian cultures centered upriver near St. Louis, Missouri. This resulted in the adaption of new pottery techniques, as well as new ceremonial objects and possibly new social patterns during the Plaquemine period. [26] As more Mississippian culture influences were absorbed, the Plaquemine area as a distinct culture began to shrink after CE 1350. Eventually, the last enclave of purely Plaquemine culture was the Natchez Bluffs area, while the Yazoo Basin and adjacent areas of Louisiana became a hybrid Plaquemine-Mississippian culture. [27] This division was recorded by Europeans when they first arrived in the area. In the Natchez Bluffs area, the Taensa and Natchez people had held out against Mississippian influence and continued to use the same sites as their ancestors, and the Plaquemine culture is considered directly ancestral to these historic period groups encountered by Europeans. [28] Groups who appear to have absorbed more Mississippian influence were identified as those tribes speaking the Tunican, Chitimachan, and Muskogean languages. [26]

Archaeological culture maps

Alternative explanations

Through the mid-19th century, European Americans did not recognize that ancestors of the Native Americans had built the prehistoric mounds of the eastern U.S. They believed that the massive earthworks and large ceremonial complexes were built by a different people. A New York Times article from 1897 described a mound in Wisconsin in which a giant human skeleton measuring over 9 ft in length was found. [29] From 1886, another New York Times article described water receding from a mound in Cartersville, Georgia, which uncovered acres of skulls and bones, some of which were said to be gigantic. Two thigh bones were measured with the height of their owners estimated at 14 ft. [30] President Lincoln made reference to the giants whose bones fill the mounds of America.

"But still there is more. It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent – when Christ suffered on the cross – when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea – nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker – then as now, Niagara was roaring here. The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now. Co[n]temporary with the whole race of men, and older than the first man, Niagara is strong, and fresh to-day as ten thousand years ago. The Mammoth and Mastodon – now so long dead, that fragments of their monstrous bones, alone testify, that they ever lived, have gazed on Niagara. In that long – long time, never still for a single moment. Never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested." [31]

The antiquarian author William Pidgeon created fraudulent surveys of mound groups that did not exist, possibly tainting this opinion, which was replaced by others. [32] [33] [34]

A major factor in increasing public knowledge of the origins of the mounds was the 1894 report by Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He concluded that the prehistoric earthworks of the Eastern United States were the work of early cultures of Native Americans. A small number of people had earlier made similar conclusions: Thomas Jefferson, for example, excavated a mound and from the artifacts and burial practices, noted similarities between mound-builder funeral practices and those of Native Americans in his time. In addition, Theodore Lewis in 1886 had refuted Pidgeon's fraudulent claims of pre-Native American moundbuilders. [35]

Writers and scholars have proposed many alternative origins for the Mound Builders:


In 1787, Benjamin Smith Barton proposed the theory that the Mound Builders were Vikings who came to North America and eventually disappeared. [36]

Ancient world immigrants

Other people believed that Greeks, Africans, Chinese, or assorted Europeans built the mounds. Some Euro-Americans thought the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had built the mounds. [36]

Book of Mormon inhabitants

During the 19th century, a common belief was that the Jews, particularly the Lost Ten Tribes, were the ancestors of Native Americans and the Mound Builders. [37] The Book of Mormon (published first in 1830) provides a related belief, as its narrative describes two major immigrations to the Americas from Mesopotamia: the Jaredites (3000–2000 BCE) and an Israelite group in 590 BCE (termed Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites). While the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites were all of Jewish origin coming from Israel around 590 BCE, the Jaradites were a non-Abrahamic people separate in all aspects, except in a belief in Jehovah, from the Nephites. The Book of Mormon depicts these settlers building magnificent cities, which were destroyed by warfare about CE 385.

Some Mormon scholars[ who? ] have considered the Book of Mormon narrative a description of the mound-building cultures; other Mormon apologists argue for a Mesoamerican or South American setting. [38] Theories about a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon did not develop until after Latter Day Saints were influenced by publicized findings about the Central American stone ruins. This occurred after the Book of Mormon was published. [39]

Black civilizations

During the 20th century, certain sects affiliated with the Black nationalist Moorish Science philosophy theorized an association with the Mound Builders. [40] [41] They argue that the Mound Builders were an ancient advanced Black civilization that developed the legendary continents of Atlantis and Mu, as well as ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica. These Black groups claim that the American Indians were too primitive to have developed the sophisticated societies and the technology believed necessary to build the mounds.[ citation needed ]

Divine creation

The Reverend Landon West claimed that Serpent Mound in Ohio was built by God, or by man inspired by him. He believed that God built the mound and placed it as a symbol of the story of the Garden of Eden. [42] [43]

Mythical cultures

Some people attributed the mounds to mythical cultures: Lafcadio Hearn suggested that the mounds were built by people from the lost continent of Atlantis. [36] [44]

Effects of alternative explanations

The mound-builder explanations were often honest misinterpretations of real data from valid sources. Both scholars and laymen accepted some of these explanations. Reference to an alleged race appears in the poem "The Prairies" (1832) by William Cullen Bryant. [45]

Assumption that construction was too complex for Indians

One belief was that American Indians were too unsophisticated to have constructed such complex earthworks and artifacts. The associated stone, metal, and clay artifacts were thought to be too complex for the Indians to have made. In the American Southeast and Midwest, numerous Indian cultures were sedentary and used agriculture. Numerous Indian towns had built surrounding stockades for defense. Capable of this type of construction, their ancestors and they could have built mounds, but people who believed that the Indians did not build the earthworks did not analyze it in this manner. They thought the Native American nomadic cultures would not organize to build such monuments, for failure to devote the time and effort to construct such time-consuming projects. [36]

When most British colonists first arrived in America, they never witnessed the American Indians building mounds, and they found that few Indians knew of their history when asked. Yet earlier Europeans, especially the Spanish, had written numerous non-English-language accounts about the Indians' construction of mounds. Garcilaso de la Vega reported how the Indians built the mounds and placed temples on top of them. A few French expeditions reported staying with Indian societies who built mounds. [36]

Assumption construction older than Indians

People also claimed that the Indians were not the Mound Builders because the mounds and related artifacts were older than Indian cultures. Caleb Atwater's misunderstanding of stratigraphy caused him to believe that the Mound Builders were a much older civilization than the Indians. In his book, Antiquities Discovered in the Western States (1820), Atwater claimed that Indian remains were always found right beneath the surface of the earth. Since the artifacts associated with the Mound Builders were found fairly deep in the ground, Atwater argued that they must be from a different group of people. The discovery of metal artifacts further convinced people that the Mound Builders were not Native Americans. The Indians encountered by the Europeans and Americans were not thought to engage in metallurgy. Some artifacts that were found in relation to the mounds were inscribed with symbols. As the Europeans did not know of any Indian cultures that had a writing system, they assumed a different group had created them. [36]


Panoramic view from within the Great Circle at the Newark Earthworks in Newark, Ohio (wall of which can be seen in the background) Ohio Newark Great Circle01 02.jpg
Panoramic view from within the Great Circle at the Newark Earthworks in Newark, Ohio (wall of which can be seen in the background)

Several hoaxes have involved the Mound Builder cultures.

Newark Holy Stones

In 1860, David Wyrick discovered the "Keystone tablet", containing Hebrew language inscriptions written on it, in Newark, Ohio. Soon afterward, he found the "Newark Decalogue Stone" nearby, also claimed to be inscribed in Hebrew. The authenticity of the "Newark Holy Stones" and the circumstances of their discovery are disputed. [36]

Davenport tablets

Reverend Jacob Gass discovered what were called the "Davenport tablets" in Iowa in the 1870s. These bore inscriptions that later were determined to be fake. [36] [ dead link ]

Walam Olum hoax

The Walam Olum hoax had considerable influence on perceptions of the Mound Builders. In 1836, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque published his translation of a text he claimed had been written in pictographs on wooden tablets. This text explained that the Lenape Indians originated in Asia, told of their passage over the Bering Strait, and narrated their subsequent migration across the North American continent. This "Walam Olum" tells of battles with native peoples already in America before the Lenape arrived. People hearing of the account believed that the "original people" were the Mound Builders, and that the Lenape overthrew them and destroyed their culture. David Oestreicher later asserted that Rafinesque's account was a hoax. He argued that the Walam Olum glyphs derived from Chinese, Egyptian, and Mayan alphabets. Meanwhile, the belief that the Native Americans destroyed the mound-builder culture had gained widespread acceptance. [36]

Kinderhook plates

Another hoax, the "Kinderhook plates" "discovered" in 1843, involved material planted by a contemporary in Native American mounds. This hoax aimed to discredit the account of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith having translated an ancient book. [46] [47]

See also

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Hopewell tradition Common aspects of Native American culture that flourished in northeastern and midwestern United States

The Hopewell tradition describes the common aspects of the Native American culture that flourished along rivers in the northeastern and midwestern United States from 100 BCE to 500 CE, in the Middle Woodland period. The Hopewell tradition was not a single culture or society, but a widely dispersed set of related populations. They were connected by a common network of trade routes, known as the Hopewell exchange system.

In archaeology, timber circles are circular arrangements of wooden posts interpreted as being either complexes of freestanding totem poles or as the supports for large circular buildings.

Mississippian culture Mound-building Native American culture in Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States

The Mississippian culture was a mound-building Native American civilization that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from approximately 800 to 1600, varying regionally. It was composed of a series of urban settlements and satellite villages (suburbs) linked together by loose trading networks. The largest city was Cahokia, believed to be a major religious center.

Poverty Point culture Archaeological culture that inhabited the lower Mississippi Valley

Poverty Point culture is an archaeological culture that of a prehistoric indigenous peoples who inhabited a portion of the lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding Gulf coast from about 1730 - 1350 BC.

The Taensa were a Native American people whose settlements at the time of European contact in the late 17th century were located in present-day Tensas Parish, Louisiana. The meaning of the name, which has the further spelling variants of Taenso, Tinsas, Tenza or Tinza, Tahensa or Takensa, and Tenisaw, is unknown. It is believed to be an autonym. The Taensa should not be confused with the Avoyel, known by the French as the petits Taensas, who were mentioned in writings by explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1699. The Taensa are more closely related to the Natchez people and both are considered descendants of the late prehistoric Plaquemine culture.

Timeline of North American prehistory timeline

This is a timeline of in North American prehistory, from 1000 BC until European contact.

The Hoojah Branch Site (9RA34) is an archaeological site in Rabun County, Georgia that had occupations from the Archaic period to the Mississippian period. It is believed to be a platform mound similar to others across North Georgia built by peoples of the South Appalachian Mississippian culture that flourished in the Southeastern United States from approximately the years 1000 to 1600. The site is located about one mile east of Dillard, Georgia and is in the Chattahoochee National Forest and may have had a connection to the Qualla mound complexes in southwestern North Carolina. The site was listed on the National Register of Historical Places on January 24, 1973 as reference number 86003667

Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site Archaeological site in Illinois, US

The Kincaid Mounds Historic Site c. 1050–1400 CE, is the site of a city from the prehistoric Mississippian culture. One of the largest settlements of the Mississippian culture, it was located at the southern tip of present-day U.S. state of Illinois. Kincaid Mounds has been notable for both its significant role in native North American prehistory and for the central role the site has played in the development of modern archaeological techniques. The site had at least 11 substructure platform mounds. Artifacts from the settlement link its major habitation and the construction of the mounds to the Mississippian period, but it was also occupied earlier during the Woodland period.

Jaketown Site Archaeological site in Humphreys County, Mississippi, United States

Jaketown Site is an archaeological site with two prehistoric earthwork mounds in Humphreys County, Mississippi, United States. While the mounds have not been excavated, distinctive pottery sherds found in the area lead scholars to date the mounds' construction and use to the Mississippian culture period, roughly 1100 CE to 1500 CE.

Coles Creek culture Late Woodland archaeological culture in Lower Mississippi valley, United States

Coles Creek culture is a Late Woodland archaeological culture in the Lower Mississippi valley in the southern United States. It followed the Troyville culture. The period marks a significant change in the cultural history of the area. Population increased dramatically and there is strong evidence of a growing cultural and political complexity, especially by the end of the Coles Creek sequence. Although many of the classic traits of chiefdom societies are not yet manifested, by 1000 CE the formation of simple elite polities had begun. Coles Creek sites are found in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. It is considered ancestral to the Plaquemine culture.

Plaquemine culture archaeological culture in the lower Mississippi River Valley, United States

The Plaquemine culture was an archaeological culture centered on the Lower Mississippi River valley. It had a deep history in the area stretching back through the earlier Coles Creek and Troyville cultures to the Marksville culture. The Natchez and related Taensa peoples were their historic period descendants. The type site for the culture is the Medora Site in Louisiana; while other examples include the Anna, Emerald, Holly Bluff, and Winterville sites in Mississippi.

Marksville culture archaeological culture in the south-eastern United States

The Marksville culture was an archaeological culture in the lower Lower Mississippi valley, Yazoo valley, and Tensas valley areas of present-day Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, and extended eastward along the Gulf Coast to the Mobile Bay area, from 100 BCE to 400 CE. This culture takes its name from the Marksville Prehistoric Indian Site in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. Marksville Culture was contemporaneous with the Hopewell cultures within present-day Ohio and Illinois. It evolved from the earlier Tchefuncte culture and into the Baytown and Troyville cultures, and later the Coles Creek and Plum Bayou cultures. It is considered ancestral to the historic Natchez and Taensa peoples.

Mangum Mound Site

Mangum Mound Site is an archaeological site of the Plaquemine culture in Claiborne County, Mississippi. It is located at milepost 45.7 on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Two very rare Mississippian culture repoussé copper plates have been discovered during excavations of the site. The site was used as a burial mound during the Foster Phase of the culture and is believed to have been abandoned before the 1540 expedition of Hernando de Soto.

Pocahontas Mounds archaeological site in Hinds County, Mississippi

Pocahontas Mounds is an archaeological site from the Plaquemine Mississippian culture in Hinds County, Mississippi, dating from 800 to 1300 CE. Two mounds from the site were added to the NRHP on two separate occasions, Pocahontas Mound A on November 25, 1969 as NRIS number 69000365 and Pocahontas Mound B on April 11, 1972 as NRIS number 72000694.

Sims Site Archaeological site in Louisiana, US

The Sims Site (16SC2), also known as Sims Place, is an archaeological site located in Saint Charles Parish, Louisiana, near the town of Paradis. The location is a multi-component mound and village complex with platform mounds and extensive midden deposits. The site habitations are divided into three periods. It was first inhabited about 800 CE by peoples of the Coastal Coles Creek culture. By 1100 CE the culture of the site had transitioned into the Mississippianized Plaquemine culture that lasted until 1450 CE. A little later was a Late Mississippian/protohistoric period that lasted from 1500 until about 1700 or 1800.


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Further reading